13 Feb 2023

The ticking time bomb of temporary accommodation on a generation of children’s mental health

Last week was Children's Mental Health Week. With over 120,000 children now homeless and living in temporary accommodation (the equivalent of one in every 100 children), and even more families facing housing insecurity as the cost of living crisis deepens, I find myself wondering what this is doing to a generation of children and young people’s mental health.

Temporary accommodation (TA) is broad term given to the housing which local authorities place people in who are in deemed as being in priority need (mostly families with children, pregnant women, or people with disabilities) and eligible (dependent on immigration status), when the authority does not have anywhere suitable straight away. It can include B&Bs, hostels, hotels, private rented houses or flats, and council or housing association properties.

Because it is largely hidden from public view, in a way that rough sleeping isn’t, the crisis of homeless families living in TA has, until quite recently, gone largely unnoticed by the general public. The terminology probably doesn’t help either. Temporary accommodation sounds fairly neutral - conjuring up images of a few nights in a hotel or an apartment, which sounds pleasant enough - a narrative heartily stoked up by the right-wing press narratives. The reality is sometimes so shockingly different it is breath-taking.

There are families living in TA for years, meaning it is not really temporary at all. Data from Shelter in 2022 revealed two-thirds of families living in TA have been there for more than 12 months, this rises to more than four-fifths in London. Some families have been living in TA for more than 10 years.

The reality of TA is that it is often very overcrowded and sometimes very poor quality. Children have to share beds with siblings or parents, with little to no space for belongings. Young children have no room to play safely or even learn to walk, and older children have nowhere to do their homework, nowhere to have friends over, and no privacy. Parents struggle to feed their children decent meals without suitable cooking facilities, reliant on expensive and unhealthy takeaways or what they can heat up with a kettle or maybe, if they are lucky, a microwave. Children and young people are getting to school, tired, late, or hungry often travelling long distances to their schools from their TA. Families are cut off from their support networks placed out of area. The reality is children and families are living in limbo and moving frequently with uncertainty and insecurity always hanging over them; this reality is as far removed from the dreamy notions of pleasant mini breaks as you can get.

The All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on temporary accommodation call for evidence report gathered written and photographic testimonies of condition of TA from people with who live in it, have lived in it or support those who do. These paint a clear picture of a growing population of children trapped in substandard TA and suffering hardship and declining mental health as a consequence. Over a quarter of parents in Shelter's growing up homeless research said their child was often unhappy or depressed as a result of living in TA.

The pressures on local authorities to find accommodation for homeless families has increased dramatically in recent years, whilst the housing options local authorities have to support people have reduced. In this country we have a chronic and catastrophic undersupply of social housing (which would be the most suitable tenure for around 1.6 million households in housing need). We also have rapidly rising private rents (last year private rents rose at the fastest rate since the ONS data series began), and a situation where the Local Housing Allowance (the rates used to calculate housing benefit for tenants renting from private landlords) no longer covers the cost of rents in many parts of the country. Combine these factors together and we have a situation where families are left in accommodation which is supposed to be temporary for extended periods of time because there is not anywhere suitable and affordable to move them to. Local authorities TA resources are full to overflowing and councils are having to look further afield and for cheaper options. The system is well and truly broken.

Fundamentally we need more social housing, and we need a benefits system that allows people to access housing and sustain their tenancies. In CIH’s recent budget submission we called for government to restore local housing allowance rates to at least the 30th percentile and return to annual uprating. We also called for the removal of the benefit cap and two-child limit. In addition to these two asks, we called on government to increase investment and grant levels to be able to provide the number of homes at social rents needed each year. Last year work by CIH with the Centre for Homelessness Impact showed a modest increase in output of social rented housing of 10,000 homes annually could largely be financed by direct savings in temporary accommodation costs and in housing benefit/universal credit that would otherwise be paid for higher-cost private rented properties.

There is a lot of talk these days about resilience and building resilience in children and young people. But why should children and young people have to be resilient to such dreadful living situations, and really how can they be? Having a secure, safe home is an essential element to experience a ‘good enough’ childhood. I don’t think anyone would disagree that all children should have the basic right to be safe, healthy and educated (SHE Framework from the Champions Project) and suitable housing is absolutely fundamental to this. A clear body of evidence is growing which demonstrates the negative effects of poor housing and homelessness on children’s physical and mental health and future development. This generation of children and young people will not simply ‘bounce back’ from these experiences, they will carry them with them for life, and the government must act urgently to help.

Written by Hannah Keilloh

Hannah is a policy and practice officer who leads our policy work surrounding planning, homelessness, and domestic abuse.